The myth about how Watsonville’s original Chinatown (1870-1888) moved from the corner of Maple and Union to a new site across the river in Monterey County began even before the move was completed in September 1888.
The story of the delicate negotiations and the Chinese being treated as equals was submerged in the sea of anti-Chinese racism which swept across California and the nation. The national manifestation of this racist campaign was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
In 1888, the Pajaro Valley needed the Chinese farm laborers to fulfill the promise of revolutionizing the valley’s agricultural economy.
The relocation of Watsonville’s Chinatown would not have happened without John T. Porter. He was already the region’s largest sugar beet grower and had been part-owner of the county’s first beet sugar mill in Soquel. By 1888 he was respected throughout the region for his political experience and public service.
And to top it off, he had been the Maple and Union Chinatown’s landlord for 18 years and had developed a mutual respect with the Chinese. Finally, Porter owned a perfect site for the Chinatown to relocate.
In the 1970s, when I first encountered the “driven across the river” story, nearly everyone, including the older Chinese, repeated the story as truth.
But, it was a voice at my elbow who constantly stated that John T. Porter, her great-great grandfather carefully shepherded the move and there was no mob or torches. Knowing full well the influence and political muscle of John T. Porter, she said of the racists of the time, “They wouldn’t dare.”
Of course, the voice was that of Diane Porter Cooley (DPC as we always referred to her) and she was as powerful in her time as John T. was in his. One day, she said, “Don’t take my word for it, Lydon. You need to research the family records for yourself.” How could I not?
I had no idea the extent of the records she was referring to, and she arranged with her mother, Bernice Porter, for me to have access to them at the family ranch in Las Lomas.
Carolyn Swift assisted in cataloging the collection working in a storage shed below the house, while Bernice brought out materials specific to the Chinese which I spread out on her living room floor.
Slowly it became clear to me, as DPC had suggested, that John T. and his wife, France (Fanny) Porter had much more than a landlord-tenant relationship with the Chinese living just outside their door on the Monterey side of the Pajaro River.
Fanny Porter was the Chinatown’s manager, and according to the family, the money she earned was her own personal “pin money.” One day, Bernice brought out a small notebook and suggested that I might want to examine it.
It took my breath away, literally, as it was the handwritten ledger book of the monthly rent receipts. Fanny was the rent collector, and she went along the main street in her buggy, dressed in black, and personally collected the rent from each tenant and dutifully transliterated the name of each, by house number. To have one month would have been sufficient, but here was each year, from when she began in 1889 until a disastrous fire in the village in 1924. The difficulty in using her notebook is that she wrote down what she heard the business name was, in Cantonese.
Fanny Porter knew that community better than anyone ever could, and the respect they afforded her showed in a pair of brass urns given to the Episcopal church upon her death.
Ultimately, the Porter family donated the bulk of the collection to the archives at the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz, where they are accessible to researchers forever forward.
It has been one year tomorrow (March 11) since Diane Porter Cooley left this world to move on to organize another or two.
And all the wheels she set in motion have not slowed down. They wouldn’t dare.
Sandy Lydon taught Asian, Asian-American and regional history at The College Formerly Known as Cabrillo from 1968 to 2022.
Excellent account of what took place in Pájaro.